This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
I was 26 before I knew the medical term for the internal hell that had plagued me for so long: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
It was the mid- 1980s, and until then, I simply thought I was crazy, and that I was the only person in the world going through this nuttiness. (One psychiatrist I’d visited had in fact referred to me as being “nuts.” At least he had a diagnosis, incorrect as it was. The others couldn’t even offer an opinion.)
OCD is a very strange and insidious phenomenon that is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not experienced it. Obsessions and compulsions related to the disorder can be very disturbing.
The obsessions – which are thoughts, images, or impulses – occur over and over again and feel out of your control. Based on my experience, they are disturbing and intrusive, and typically don’t make sense; they are accompanied by sickly, horrifying feelings of fear, disgust, doubt, and intense guilt. Compulsions are the “magical” way of trying to make the obsessions go away (though, it never works); the acts are performed repeatedly, often according to self-imposed “rules.”
To give you an idea of the level of discomfort the obsessions cause: take the worst of your “bad thoughts,” multiply them by ten, and play them over and over in your head during every waking moment. (They may also appear in your nightmares).
What’s even more disturbing is that the bad thoughts tend to target what you value the most. In my case, this was God and my parents. It seemed as though every horrifying thought involved these two areas of my life.
For example, if I had a bad thought, I’d then have to do a “compulsive” act to cancel it out. I remember one time driving past a graveyard when I had a horrible OCD thought about my parents. In order to “undo” the thought, I had to drive past the graveyard twice (once to cancel it out, and the other to do the actual drive) while trying not to think the thought.
I drove around the graveyard for an hour, torturing myself trying to drive past it twice without having the thought. I was paralyzed; I could not bring myself to leave. Finally, realizing it was never going to work, I left. For days, I obsessed about the thought before it eventually left my mind.
Walking past doorways was also challenging. If I walked through one while having a bad thought, I had to retrace the steps twice – without having the thought, of course. You can imagine how many times I needed to walk back and forth before I made it through twice without the thought. I tried to be discreet, but strangers often looked at me as though I was bizarre. Eventually, friends also found it difficult to be around me.
There was one period of about six months that I would hit myself repeatedly in the face each time I had a bad thought. By physically punishing myself, I was hoping to alleviate the guilt I felt for having these thoughts. Of course, it never worked. I look back upon this now – and there was so much more – and wonder how I emerged without causing myself some serious physical damage.
OCD rituals are performed to obtain relief from the discomfort caused by the obsessions. But the relief I felt never lasted long.
After I was diagnosed with OCD, I felt that there was some light at the end of the tunnel. However, the road ahead was long and there were still many setbacks along the way. One summer evening, leaving work during a rainstorm, I sat outside waiting for the rain to let up. As I sat watching the rain, I experienced a particularly horrible OCD thought which set off a chain of other related thoughts. I am not sure which came more furiously: the downpour of rain or the outpouring of horrid, disturbing thoughts. For not the first time, I – a grown man respected in the business community – bawled my eyes out, and pleaded to God to stop the thoughts.
Years later, my OCD symptoms have been managed through medication and behavior therapy. While there is no cure for OCD, you can always strive to be more functional. You can work around it and live your life the best that you can. And you can hope that your story helps others with OCD to feel less alone.
There is nothing good in one’s life for which OCD can take credit. But, perhaps – in my case – there is one thing that has grown stronger as a result of my personal struggle with OCD. Because of it, I have an extraordinary amount of empathy for others who are suffering any type of pain. This has allowed me to help many people in different ways. But, please understand – while I accept my situation as it is, if I were given the choice to not have OCD and not be as empathetic, I’d absolutely choose not having OCD.
If there is an epilogue to this story, it’s that, for the past 25 years, I have had a great life. Even while living in fear at times of the next series of bad thoughts, I mainly live in gratitude at how fortunate I am to do work that I love, touch lives in a positive way, and be surrounded by close family, friends, and acquaintances, both online and off.
Bob Burg is a speaker at sales and leadership conferences. He is a coauthor of the international bestseller, The Go-Giver, and a number of other popular books.